How do I learn a non-Indo-European language? Vocabulary is just mind blowing (details in the comment), "comprehensible input" just doesn't work for me

When I learn an IE language, I feel the same thought process. But now I wanna learn a non-IE language (I’m trying to choose between Mandarin/Japanese). The problem is that I can’t learn new vocabulary in the same way I learn IE languages. E.g. I learn a new word, I just read it and “see” the image in my head or “feel” the meaning, I don’t translate it into my native language in my head, I just get it as it is. But when I’m trying to memorize some non-IE vocabulary it doesn’t work at all. I don’t feel this connection ”word - image of the object”. It feels foreign or even absurd, and looks like “word - I’m trying to translate it into one of my languages - then I ”see” it in my imagination”.
When I learn some new vocabulary of IE languages like English/German/Spanish, I just see/hear the word and instantly understand what it means.
How should I overcome this weird problem?
Learning Japanese/Chinese vocabulary (even the basics) is a nightmare. It’s still impossible to understand anything fast, I have to pause and translate it.

OK so here’s my 2c.
Russian is an indo-european language but for me it was so far away from English, Spanish and French that it seemed like gibberish.

I know you seem to think that if it’s not Indo-European it’s somehow radically different than a distant Indo-European from your native. I believe that is not the case and in fact it’s merely distant languages regardless of the language group that present problems in remembering words.

Here’s my own experience (ironically with your own native language):

My method is learn 2-3,000 words in anki then start watching videos and doing lingQ.
With French and Spanish I was able to plow through words, sometimes 50-100 new words a day because tons of them were cognate with English. It was easy for them to stick. I was able to get up to 4,000 words in about two months in both Spanish and French. I tried to do 1,000 words in the first month with Russian but I stalled.
With Russian none of the words stuck. I got bogged down with so many repetitions I was unable to proceed.
I had to slow way way down and do 10 words maximum, sometimes no new words per day. I had to drill drill drill drill and it often took 20 tries even to remember them which was nuts. In Spanish or French the worst words took maybe 6-7 tries to recall.

Over time I discovered, however the Russian words did in fact stick.
It just took tons and tons and tons of tries and gradual familiarization with Russian sounds and word parts.
In hindsight, part of the issue for me is lack of familiarity with the sound components of Russian. Some of the sounds are unlike those of English or Spanish or French. In the case of French, one or two of the sounds are different but not different enough for it to be a problem.
Plus the parts of the word. They were super-unfamiliar.

9 months later I’ve made pretty decent progress. I can understand spoken Russian at high a2 low b1 level and I have managed to memorize about 3500 words with about another 2000 in the process of committing to memory.

My interpretation of my experience is that it takes time to learn languages that are far away from your native tongue.

Also: I did a short experiment with Mandarin about six weeks ago.
Mandarin is harder to memorize than Russian because it seems to me that most of the consonants are blurred. A d sounds like a t and vice versa. An r sounds like an l and vice versa. Some of the vowels can’t make their minds up what they are. I struggled to even comprehend what I was hearing.
That said, I was in fact able to memorize a few words successfully albeit at a much reduced rate of speed than even Russian. I reckon that it will also take a bunch of time for my brain to be able to comprehend the sounds and then it will speed up.

Anyhow, the above is my 2c for what it’s worth.


Yes indeed, acquiring vocabulary is one of the main hurdles to learning these languages, the other would be understanding the spoken language. The writing system, however, is not that big a problem, at least in comparison to the other two.

As for the learning Chinese, I’ve not been able to find a shortcut, the challenge is real. It simply takes a very long time to get anywhere; thousands of hours, probably spread over many years. However, the statistics here on LingQ do help, in that they give an indication of progress, even if you feel like you’re not making any. Which is probably going to be… most of the time :wink:.

My recommendations, based on my humble experience:

  1. Have strong motivation and good reasons to embark on this journey
  2. Adjust your expectations
  3. Have infinite patience
  4. Don’t get frustrated
  5. Put in the hours

There are lots of successful learners of Chinese and probably even more of Japanese here on LingQ and I’m sure they’ll be happy to share their wisdom.
You can also search the forum here for previous discussions, the topic has come up over the years.


Duolingo (only typing in the computer, no smartphone) + flashcards, then come back here.

Another option: easier input here + flashcards. By easier, I mean that the ministories are too hard for a start in a non-IE language IMHO. Facing real texts or even mini-stories with a “swim-or-sink” approach is probably not a good idea when starting this type of languages.

Also, handwriting really helps. It’s not a useful skill nowadays, but it helps get better acquainted with the characters and strokes.

Setting a modest, realistic initial goal (such as a low level of HSK or JLPT within X months) may also help at the beginning.